Bales of linen fabric.

Fabric focus: linen

It looks good, and keeps us cool in summer. But where does linen come from?

Linen is made from fibres of the flax plant stem. The word linen is derived from the Latin for the flax plant, which is linum, and the Greek, linon. Linen textiles are some of the oldest in the world, produced from at least 10,000 years ago.

High quality flax is mostly grown in Western Europe and Ukraine. The highest quality fabrics are produced in Ireland, Italy and Belgium, but linens are also produced in many other European countries and in India. However bulk linen production is mainly in Eastern Europe and China.

Properties of linen

Linen fabric feels cool; it is also breathable and is stronger and more lustrous than cotton. The more it is washed, the softer it gets. Linen is stronger when wet than when it is dry. It is also resistant to clothes moths and dirt.

However, linen fibres do not stretch, so repeated folding or creasing in the same place will tend to break the linen threads, for example on collars, hems or pressed tablecloth folds. Linen is known for wrinkling easily: this is because it has poor elasticity so does not spring back readily.

It is available in many colours: natural linen is available in shades of ivory, ecru, tan and grey (pure white linen is produced by heavy bleaching). As linen is a natural fibre, it can also be easily dyed in a variety of colours.

There are different grades and thicknesses of linen fabric available. It can be crisp, textured, rough, soft or smooth. Linen fabric absorbs and loses water rapidly, so it can absorb moisture without feeling unpleasantly damp to the skin. This is why it is often worn in hot climates or during the summer.

Slubs – small lumps of fibre that occur randomly – can appear in linen fabric. Historically these were considered to be defects and were associated with low quality linen. However, in linen fabrics today, slubs are considered to be part of a natural product. That said, the finest quality linen has very consistent diameter threads with no slubs.

Producing linen

The quality of the finished linen product is dependent on the growing conditions and harvesting techniques used on the flax. Good quality linen uses the longest possible fibres. These come from flax that is hand-harvested by pulling up the entire plant or from stalks that are cut very close to the ground. The plants go through various mechanical processes to prepare them:

  • Plants are dried, and the seeds are removed by ‘rippling’ (threshing) and winnowing.
  • Retting: the flax fibres are loosened from the stalk. Natural retting uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the flax fibres together. Faster chemical retting can be done but is more harmful to the environment and to the flax fibres.
  • Scutching: the stalks are crushed between metal rollers to remove the woody parts, so the stalk can be separated. The fibres are removed.
  • The short fibres are combed out with heckling combs, leaving behind the long, soft flax fibres.
  • The fibres are spun into yarn. This is woven (or sometimes knitted) into linen fabrics.
  • The fabric can be finished by being bleached, dyed, printed, and/or adding treatments or coatings.

There is an alternative production method, known as ‘cottonising’. The flax stalks are processed using cotton machinery. This is faster but the finished fibres often lose the characteristics of linen.

Uses of linen

Linen is used to make household items such as tablecloths, upholstery, soft furnishings and curtains. It is also used for making many types of garment and for making a strong sewing thread. Linen is often embroidered, especially on women’s clothes and household items.

The use of linen has changed. In the 1970s about 5% of linen was used for fashion while the rest was used for household items.  However, about 70% of linen production is now used for fashion.

How to look after linen